Thursday, 1 March 2012

Our day will come - the Order of Chaeronea

"The greatest tragedy of the whole nineteenth century makes me pause and think. But there is no justice in the world I have seen, that the land is full of tears I know: we must leave to time and evolution and then our day will come."
George Ives (on the death of Oscar Wilde)

In the 1860s, a German lawyer named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs may have been the first modern European to publicly declare his homosexuality. Ulrichs wrote dozens of books and pamphlets that made a crucial argument: The preference for same-sex love is hereditary; therefore it should not be a crime. He introduced the word "Uranian" as a synonym for homosexual relations, and even demanded that homosexuals be granted the right to marry.

By the late 1870s Oscar Wilde, already preoccupied with the philosophy of same-sex love, befriended and frequented the poet and writer John Addington Symonds, who helped found several “Walt Whitman Societies” in the north of England – the first recorded English groups of gay men founded explicitly to discuss same-sex love.

During this period Wilde also became familiar with the writings of Ulrichs. Wilde embraced both Ulrichs’ philosophy and his Uranian language, and he and his friends began to refer in their letters to the campaign for legalization of homosexuality as “the Cause”.

In 1893, a friend of Wilde's George Cecil Ives, believing that "the Cause" could not be openly discussed due to the extreme moral restriction of the age, founded The Order of Chaeronea - a secret society for homosexuals.

The name and spirit of the order was taken from the battle in which the Sacred Band of Thebes, a corps of 150 pairs of gay lovers, were defeated by Philip of Macedon and his son (later Alexander the Great) at the Battle of Chaeronea. The 300 were annihilated because they refused to surrender.
"And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?"
Plato - Symposium
Taking this Army of Lovers as their model for courage in the face of oppression, the Order of Chaeronea organized powerful and wealthy homosexuals who were otherwise unable to meet in public, into a secret political and spiritual force. An elaborate system of rituals, ceremonies, a service of initiation, seals, codes, and passwords were used by the members.

From Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Spirit & Folklore:
  • The “bibles” of what amounted to a homosexual-centered (or proto-Gay/Queer Spiritual) faith included Ives’ own books of ritual as well as the Anthologia Graeca and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
  • The god of the Order was Eros, that “gay, capricious angel of night” with “vast wings” of Ives’ poem “With Whom, then, Should I Sleep?”(1896).
  • The messiah, or prophet of the faith was Walt Whitman.
  • The seal of the Order was comprised of: a double wreath of calamus (sacred to Whitman) and myrtle (sacred to the Greeks), a chain signifying the “great chain of lovers;” the number 338 referring to the Sacred Band; the letters “D” (for discipline), “L” (for learning), “and “Z” (for zeal); and the mystical word AMRRHAO.
  • At the time of initiation, the novie was entreated to “love someone, for as the prophet Whitman says, ‘that is the beginning of knowledge.’” The initiate was then instructed to follow a set of guidelines based primarily in self-esteem and respect of others, after which he joined others in reciting quotations from Whitman, Wilde, and others. He then formally agreed to struggle against the oppression of others like himself. This was apparently followed by a love-feast, including a tongue-in-cheek recitation of Wilde’s dictum, “Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling.”
All rather silly, but prominent members of the Order (although probably not all adherents of the pseudo-religion) included sexologist Magnus Hirschfield, Arts & Crafts designer C. R. Ashbee, Laurence Housman (brother of poet A.E. Housman) and socialist philosopher and gay campaigner Edward Carpenter. It has been suggested that while the Order was comprised primarily of men, the lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall and her lover Una Lady Troubridge also may have been members.

The Order, despite growing to worldwide proportions, failed to achieve much in the way of public political reform in its day. Ives, on the other hand, used the society to present papers arguing for the rights of gays and lesbians until his death. He fastidiously studied and collected gay imprisonments, trials, treatments and the day’s discussions on sex and gender. He died in 1950 at the age of 82, and left 122 volumes of diaries, various letters and scrapbooks, all of which are bizarrely located in The University of Texas archive.



  1. This whole post was fascinating and informative and news to me.

    1. Thanks, my dear - it fascinated me, too! Jx


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